Who are you?
If you saw Derek DelGaudio's In & Of Itself in its original incarnation as live theater, the first thing that happened was that as you went into the Daryl Roth Theatre, you passed a wall with little cards hanging on it, and you were meant to choose one. They said "I AM" on the top half, and then there was a word or a phrase on the bottom half. So you could choose "I AM the life of the party," or "I AM a father," or "I AM an accountant." The first time I went to see it in October 2017, I had sold my book only a couple of months earlier, and it was a year and a half away from publication. I chose "I AM a novelist." They collected the cards and tore them — you kept your I AM half, they kept the other half. The cards they kept were placed in a little stack. That's how it started.
I ultimately saw the show one more time with a friend in January 2018 (that time, I believe I chose "I AM a gamechanger" or something), because I couldn't bear that no one I was close to had seen it and could talk about it with me. Now, a filmed adaptation is available on Hulu. And they've managed to do something that's always hard with filmed theater and seemed like it was going to be almost impossible here: They've made this version feel very, very much the way one of the most powerful theatrical experiences I've ever had felt when I was in the room.
DelGaudio is ... well, he's a storyteller, and he's a performer, and he's a magician. You'll hear In & Of Itself referred to as conceptual magic or interactive theater or a one-man show. Those things are all technically true, but they're desperately incomplete. I might describe it as a series of vignettes, punctuated by some basic sleight-of-hand, some card tricks, and two of the most extraordinary audience-involved sequences I ever expect to see. I don't understand — at all — how either was done. I have tried not to make too many guesses. I don't want people to tell me their guesses. I know both sequences have earthly explanations, but I don't need them. I don't want them.
I don't mean to stall with the basics; I want to describe the show to you, because of how badly I want to persuade you to watch the film. But I knew essentially nothing when I first saw it except that it was kind of magic-adjacent and several people I trusted had recommended it. I want that for you. So I don't want to tell you too much about the elephant, or the brick, or the boat, or the moment in the film when you can see a familiar audience member's hand shaking with emotion. (The film is assembled from several live performances, so you'll glimpse a handful of the many famous people who made their way into the theater at some point or another, but no attention is drawn to them unless you're looking for it.)
One of the traps of watching magic is that it can be like watching fireworks: At the beginning, there's the startle that comes from just being reminded that a particular thing — explosions, or card tricks — can be really impressive and grand. But once you see that a couple of times, the effect quickly fades. And with magic, what are your choices once you've seen something flashy other than to either forget about it or fuss over how it was done? Once it's over, what can you do with it, with the fact of it, other than try to ruin it for yourself? What's special about this magic relative to a lot of lesser presentations is that it's about something. It's about seeing people and being seen by them, and about how your own narrative of who you are — I AM a novelist, I AM a gamechanger — collides with stories about who you are that you didn't get to write.
The place of magic in In & Of Itself is not to amaze for amazement's sake, although I was certainly stunned by some of what happened. It's that the unreal is used to create the super-real: an experience you know not to take literally creates a truthful feeling of connectedness in an audience. You'll see that feeling in the climax of the show, which starts about 15 minutes from the end of the film, and I can honestly, truly tell you it felt just like that to me when I saw it. The things you're seeing aren't literally what they seem, in the same way a body is not literally being sawed in half in another show, or a rabbit isn't really spontaneously appearing in a hat. But the feeling was entirely genuine, in that it activated a part of me that craved that moment of being seen and identified and recognized as myself, and that's what you see in the often emotional reactions of DelGaudio's audience in the film.
(Stay for the credits; there's a series of photos and videos that reflect the way the show sends a bit of itself out into the world, out into the places where its specific illusions don't persist.)
Not often but occasionally, you'll see quick cuts through the same moment in the show as it happened during a bunch of performances, generally to demonstrate how it looked with all different people in the audience. It's an effective technique, partly because it can put to rest some theories about how some of the show's magic might have been accomplished (no, it was not the same person in that seat or in this situation every night) and partly to emphasize over and over one of the things that makes live theater special, which is that each performance only exists relative to its audience, especially with something like this. You never see the show, only your show. You see your show on your night, with your company, in your mood. In less expert hands, that could break the film by making each individual moment feel interchangeable, but director Frank Oz — who was also DelGaudio's partner in the production of the original show — knows how to deploy those techniques sparingly, so that you're just briefly reminded that this reality was created over and over, and it was always a little different.
I'm probably always going to want to know how some of this was done, but I try not to think about it. Do not tell me. I prefer to sit quietly with my not-understanding, which is to say, my wonder. I AM a skeptic; I AM a critic; I AM a novelist; I AM satisfied.